Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What to make of the NYT UFO story? Read it with a dose of skepticism

Salman Hameed

UFO's have again crossed over into the mainstream. New York Times had a front page story on Sunday about a secret Department of Defense program that investigated reports of UFOs from 2007-2012 (and may be it is still active). Politico also has an independent article on the same UFO program. I have been teaching a class called Aliens: Close Encounters of a Multidisciplinary Kind for the past ten years. In the class we look at the claims of UFOs and alien abductions from a historical, sociological, psychological, astronomical, and religious perspectives. It is a lot of fun and a story like this pretty much hits the bullseye for the topics we discuss.

So what do we make of the claims in the NYT article?

I think there are two key stories here. First, it is about the allocation of at least $22 million from late 2008 to 2011 and the second is about the investigation into UFO claims.

For the first one, $22 million is a lot of money for academics, but the DoD has an annual budget of $600 billion! Nevertheless, the powerful Democratic senator Harry Reid managed to get this money to fellow Nevadan Harold Bigelow - who owns a hotel chain and also an aerospace company:
Mr. Reid said his interest in U.F.O.s came from Mr. Bigelow. In 2007, Mr. Reid said in the interview, Mr. Bigelow told him that an official with the Defense Intelligence Agency had approached him wanting to visit Mr. Bigelow’s ranch in Utah, where he conducted research.
Nevertheless, Pentagon was involved and via its secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP):
For years, the program investigated reports of unidentified flying objects, according to Defense Department officials, interviews with program participants and records obtained by The New York Times. It was run by a military intelligence official, Luis Elizondo, on the fifth floor of the Pentagon’s C Ring, deep within the building’s maze. 
The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties. 
Where did the money go?
The funding went to Mr. Bigelow’s company, Bigelow Aerospace, which hired subcontractors and solicited research for the program. 
Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, the company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes. In addition, researchers spoke to military service members who had reported sightings of strange aircraft.
Well - this is the part that piqued my interest. There have been earlier claims of "recovered" metal alloys from alien spacecrafts. It is part of Roswell mythology as well (for example, see a few minutes here from the movie Roswell: The UFO Coverup). From that perspective, the military has been hiding this since 1947. Of course, these alien metal alloys are always "top secret" and have not been subjected to any peer-review study. And for some weird reason have not revolutionized the world either (unless, of course iPhone is an alien technology). My point is that these type of claims are standard part of UFO contact mythology for 60-70 years. But this time, the New York Times is reporting on it and so my assumption is that it may have more backing to the reported story.

Alas - when you dig a bit deeper, you find a lot of red flags that suggest that you will be wise to take these claims with a healthy dose of salt (and earthly salt will do - you don't need salt from the mineral planet Crait from the latest Star Wars).

Here are a few reasons that have made me skeptical of the claims:
1) Association with other fringe ideas: Bigelow - whose company got most of the money - also bought Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. This ranch is one of favorites for people who believe in all sorts of paranormal activities. There are claim of cattle mutilations (yes - aliens travel lights years to mutilate earthly cows), poltergeist, and bullet-proof wolves on the ranch, and have been part of stories of Coast to Coast AM.

A number of people associated with this program have joined together to be a part of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Humanities (TTS/AAS). It is founded by UFO enthusiast and former Blink 182 frontman Tom DeLonge. The person who ran the AATIP initiative at Pentagon, Luis Elizondo has now joined this venture as well. The Vice President of Science & Technology, Hal Puthoff, was the founder of CIA's psychic program in the 1970s and also believed that Uri Geller had real psychic powers (despite the prominent debunking of Geller's claims by Johnny Carson - see this fantastic clip). One of the authors of a book on the Skinwalker Ranch, Colm Kelleher, is a biotech consultant of TTS/AAS.

A major major red flag comes up when you look at the Science section of TTS/AAS website. Just look at their approach to claims of telepathy. They are not even questioning if the phenomenon of telepathy is real. Instead, they are already going forward to "Explore the location in the brain where this phenomenon is centered, and develop protocols for its enhancement and use". This tells you a lot about the people involved in the project. Instead of taking of a skeptical stance (hallmark of any good science), they are already believers. For a contrast, look at how claims of microbial lifeforms in Viking Lander experiments on Mars were treated or in the meteorite from Mars, ALH84001.

I haven't looked into all the members associated with this group. But already we can see that it is not just about UFOs, but that now it involves other paranormal phenomena as well. And that is a pretty good sign that we are now heading to the crazy town.

2) Alien technology - always just 1-step beyond reach: There have been claims of alien spacecrafts since 1896-1897. There were multiple sightings of cigar shaped alien crafts. Of course, airship designs were known at the time and interestingly "aliens"  already that those in our skies. A few decades later, when humans had propeller planes, alien spacecrafts were advanced enough fly without propellers. Now that we have supersonic planes, the alien spacecrafts look slicker than our planes they move vertical and at a very high speed. It is just interesting that aliens are usually just 1-step ahead of us - but then this could just be a coincidence.

And of course, as mentioned above, alien artifacts haven never been subjected to any peer-review studies or have had any discernible influence on the human technology.

3) For-profit venture and the closed cycle of credibility: Many of these stars of research are now part of To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (as mentioned above). It is a for-profit venture in what its founder calls it a "Public Benefit Corporation" and they have a button to "invest" right on their front page. They have so far sold $2 million in stock shares so far and the NYT story is a perfect boon for such an organization - which already has plastered quotes from the article on its website. In its launch video, the founder Tom DeLonge talked about making this venture a "perpetual funding machine".

Both Politico and NYT stories detail how Harry Reid bypassed the Senate and got support from Alaskan senator, Ted Stevens, and the then head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Daniel Inouye (Hawai'i) to appropriate this "black money" channeled for this questionable research. But then Tom DeLonge and others used the fact that they have been funded by DoD as way to argue for their credibility. This is a closed cycle of credibility without much due process or any minimal peer review by scientists (if they consider this research scientific).

But what do we do about the video of an "encounter" of F/A-18 pilot released by DoD's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP)

It is intriguing. The right answer is - we don't know what this is. I would love to know more about it and have the data analysis being open for a peer-review process by scientists. But just because we don't know what it is, doesn't mean that it is a spacecraft from another planet. That is a huge leap that is not justified by the data. Pilots have reported seeing lights since the early days of flight. Foo Fighters (not the band - but wandering lights) have been reported at least since WWII. Are these ionized gases in the atmosphere? Are these things that people imagine in a low oxygen environment at 15,000 feet? Are these refractions off our atmosphere? Are these spacecrafts from other planets? Are these ethereal beings imagined in numerous folk stories? 

Well - we don't know and we do need to find out what is being seen on the radar. 

If you want a good example on how to approach aliens then look no further than the way astronomers have approached the weirdness of Tabby's Star (KIC 8462852). Astronomers detected a strange pattern in the dimming of this star. Something that had never been seen before and that could not be explained easily with any natural astronomical phenomenon. The presence of a possible Alien megastructure was/is being suggested as a far-fetched possibility. While this is an amazingly exciting possibility, astronomers have been trying their best to to find a natural explanation. This is not because they don't want to believe in presence of intelligent beings out in the universe - but rather that the presence of intelligent beings elsewhere is such a huge claim that we have to be absolutely sure that we are missing out something more simple.  "Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence", as Carl Sagan used to say. 

I will leave it up to you to see if the UFO claims made by DoD's AATIP program or the To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTS/AAS)

Also, here is my conversation on this topic with Monte Belmonte on Monday for our fantastic local indie radio station, The River - 93.9FM

Friday, December 15, 2017

Fantastic Iraqi Translation Project for Science

Salman Hameed

I have just returned from Qatar after attending a workshop on science education in the Gulf. More on that soon. But there were interesting discussions about the medium of instruction for science classes. This is a tricky issue as children learn best in their mother language. But good translations (our any translations) are not available, thus limiting what can be taught and learn in school. Within this context, is fantastic to know about the Iraqi Translation Project. Paul Baterman has a nice article about this project and its promise in the Arab world:
The Iraqi Translation Project (ITP) is one of several similar projects that have sprung up in recent years, spurred on no doubt by the disappointments of the Arab Spring. The potential audience is enormous; these projects keep well-curated Facebook pages, and according to the Dubai-based Arab Social Media Report, there are over 150m Facebook users in their target areas.
ITP started in 2013. Its materials are archived on its website, and accessible through Facebook, where it has over 140,000 followers, and on YouTube. The closely related Arabic-language Real Science, founded in 2011, also has its own website (now bilingual) and Facebook page. 
The co-founders of ITP, several of whom are also involved in Real Science, include Hassan Mazin Alkhayuon, currently a PhD candidate in applied mathematics at the University of Exeter – and my own main contact with the project – a biology teacher, a construction engineer with experience in popularising science, a surgeon and an English literature graduate. 
ITP translates cultural articles, videos and documentaries, with particular concentration on science-related digital materials for a general audience, of which there is a severe lack in Arabic. The project runs entirely on a voluntary basis, and currently has over 50 active volunteers, including some qualified or qualifying as a translators.
This is a fantastic effort and needs to grow. The impact is not immediate, but it needs a sustained effort. One of the offshoots of this kind of effort is that it may also allow a broader discussion of topics that are not usually addressed. Now evolution, unfortunately, is becoming one of the topics that is being considered more and more controversial in several Muslim countries (it wasn't the case in biology textbooks even a few years ago - and places like Saudi Arabia were more of an exception in their opposition to evolutionary theory). Therefore, it is great to know that ITP has been translating works on evolution as well, including that getting the support of Neil Shubin:
The project has managaed to attract some high-ranking support. Neil Shubin, discoverer of Tiktaalik (the “missing link” between lobefish and amphibians), gave an interview on his motivation as a scientist. His book, Your Inner Fish, is one of my favourite accounts of evolution science, and ITP has provided the documentary version with Arabic subtitles. 
So far, ITP has translated over 2,000 articles, 60 documentaries and 150 videos. Topics cover a wide range of subjects, from Sumerian civilisation, gravity waves and political secularism, to female philosophers and interbreeding of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.
The project does not shy away from sensitive topics, although of course publication does not imply agreement, and recent posts discuss anything from the nature of religious belief to the politics of separatism in Catalonia and Kurdistan. Evolution is one of the most popular subjects, with the first instalment of Your Inner Fish having received over 90,000 views since August 2016. 
And yes, you should definitely check out Your Inner Fish - both the book and the documentary.

At a time when there is a shortage of good and positive stories, it is great to hear about the Iraqi Translation Project.

Read the full article here.